Spring 2012

5 Questions with an Expert on the Origins of Life

A conversation with Jack Szostak

Space Savers Issue

  • by Susan Karcz

Jack Szostak, professor, Department of Genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS; Alex Rich Distinguished Investigator, Massachusetts General Hospital; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

What led you to shift from researching telomeres, work for which you received a Nobel Prize, to researching the origins of life?

Our telomere work opened up a lot of questions and brought in many brilliant people who would answer those questions. As this was happening, a lot of new research began coming out about ribozymes and the origins of life. This research caught my interest; I thought my laboratory could make a contribution to this field.

What niche does your lab occupy within the origins-of-life research community?

I see the field as a continuum, from understanding how planets form, to uncovering the early chemistry on a young planet, to the formation of increasingly complex molecules such as amino acids, nucleotides, sugars, and lipids. We’re asking, once those building blocks of life were present, how did they get together and start acting like a cell? How did a primitive cell adapt to different environments? How did Darwinian evolution emerge out of this chemistry?

What is your lab working on now?

Pretty much the total focus of our lab is on building a primitive cell. What we want to see in the lab are examples of spontaneous Darwinian evolution. We’d like to discover pathways—a plausible series of steps from simple to more complex molecules, from simple cells to more complicated organisms.

We’re working to solve how primitive cells begin to replicate genetic material spontaneously without enzymes. There are a lot of gaps in that story now, but we hope to fill in some of them.

You seem to prefer collaboration over competition. It that true?

It is. I’d rather be in a relaxed environment than in one driven by direct competition. The Harvard Origins of Life Initiative offers me that collaborative environment for it includes scientists from such disciplines as astronomy, earth sciences, chemistry, and biology. It’s fun because it’s so interdisciplinary. When we talk, we share perspectives that make the research we do together more exciting and, I think, more creative. Several of the astronomers in our group, for example, are involved in the Kepler mission, which is discovering new exoplanets every day. If I talked only with molecular biologists, I would miss opportunities to see beyond my discipline.

What inspired your fascination with scientific inquiry?

My father was an engineer, so I grew up with the idea that you test ideas by building things. That was what my lab did in the telomere story. We built an artificial chromosome to see if it worked the way we expected it to. It didn’t. That failure motivated us to learn something new to fill out the story.

We’re now taking the same kind of approach to study the origins of life, by trying to build a primitive cell. When we see how things work—or don’t work—we ask new questions and discover their answers.

Image: John Soares